Before Heschel Became Heschel.

AuthorRomano, Carlin


Abraham Joshua Heschel

University of Nebraska Press/JPS

2019, 240 pp, $29.95

At the height of his fame, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) towered as America's foremost Jewish public intellectual, playing much the role Reinhold Niebuhr took on for America's Protestants. Indeed, it was Niebuhr himself, later to become Heschel's best friend, who first brought the emigre Polish scholar to wide public attention with his review of Man Is Not Alone (1951), calling Heschel "the most authentic prophet of religious life in our culture."

Admirers during Heschel's lifetime praised many aspects of his varied career: his impassioned theological scholarship, ecumenical outreach to other religions and spirited activism for social justice, which included marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, protesting the Vietnam War and igniting the campaign to free Soviet Jews. Judaic scholar Jacob Neusner judged Heschel "the most productive and by far the best theological mind in modern and contemporary Judaism." Martin Marty, the magisterial scholar of religion, praised Heschel for a body of work "directed not only at the mind but at the heart and the will."

Given Heschel's dramatic trajectory from Poland to Germany to England and eventually the U.S., his multiple dimensions all made sense. The descendant of generations of esteemed Hasidic rabbis on both sides of his family, Heschel piously mastered classic Jewish texts by his late teens and then headed to Vilna and Berlin to balance his theological training with a secular education. During the 1930s, as Jewish life in Berlin grew dangerous, Heschel still managed to earn his doctorate, publish Jewish scholarship, poetry and journalism and get tapped by Martin Buber to direct the Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt.

Things darkened considerably once Germany expelled all Polish-passport-holding Jews in 1938. Heschel ended up detained for months in a squalid border camp before his Warsaw family intervened to free him. He finally obtained a visa to the U.S. six weeks before the Nazis invaded, but his mother and three of his sisters were killed during the war. Arriving in the U.S. in 1940 and teaching first at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he gradually recognized that his own devotion to Jewish law meshed poorly with the institution's Reform ideology. Moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the center of Conservative Judaism, Heschel...

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